DIY DVR

Background

I became a TiVO early adopter in 2002 buying a Sony TiVO for use with Cox Cable. Having a couple of greyhounds who needed walked during the evening, I quickly became hooked by the ability to record shows for later viewing and to pause what I was watching when the dogs demanded attention or to use the loo. As digital TV approached, I traded the Sony for a TiVO HD and went digital with cable cards. The writers strike drove me to take a look at BBC America. I discovered Doctor Who, Torchwood, and Top Gear.

With the passage of 5 years or so, the TiVO HD’s disk is getting tired, I tired of commercial cable, and TiVO’s $20/month is no longer a good value. After all, how many episodes of Ice Road Truckers can one person watch before going batty? What to do next?

Elgato

Enter the cat. Elgato makes media center software and video capture hardware for Apple Macintosh computers selling under the EyeTV name for about a decade. In the Apple community, Elgato is the company to go to for this capability. The current version of EyeTV supports the current Elgato video capture devices plus selected video tuner hardware made by others.

EyeTV 3 can record programs by channel and title. No need to do the VHS thing and set channel and time. Just open up the program guide and select record or record all. Record will create a one-time schedule entry to record the selected program. Record all creates a smart schedule to record all unrecorded broadcasts of that program on that channel. This capability mimics a TiVO Season Pass but goes it one better. You can add additional conditions that an episode must satisfy in order to be recorded.

Some Silicon Dust

I wasn’t keen on the Elgato USB tuner. This device is laptop oriented and can work with off the air and cable tv but I was not keen on connecting a lightening rod directly to my computer. It would be nice to have at least a little isolation. Silicon Dust HDHomeRun Dual came to the rescue. This is the current version of HDHomeRun which has been around for 5 or so years. The device has a dual cable/air turner, a bit of computing, and an Ethernet connection. Application protocols allow EyeTV or Windows Media Center to tune channels and start data streaming. The new digital TV is already digitized so no finicky analog to digital converters are needed. Just recover the MPEG-2 stream and tunnel it over IP to the host.

Silicon Dust makes multiple versions of HDHomeRun for use in Europe with DVB and in North America with ATSC. The current Dual version has 2 tuners and can stream 2 streams at a time. The HDHomeRun Prime version has a cable card slot and can stream both “clear QAM” and copy protected QAM. The Prime version also has a USB port for controlling a cable company switched digital video interface.

Putting it All Together

Setup is simple. Move the antenna cable to the HDHomeRun, plug up Ethernet, plug up the power adapter (small switching supply, not a hulk). Install EyeTV 3 from a disk image, start it, and add the license key. EyeTV 3 wakes up a start up wizard that guides you through the process of setting up the HDHomeRun, creating a TV Guide account ($20/year not $20/month), and loading the channel guide. Once this process is done, your DIY DVR is ready to use. The first year of the program guide is included in the EyeTV 3 price. All of this took about an hour with a little wrestling needed with TV Guide. It didn’t load at first. Elgato support forums had the fix, clear the guide and reload. This worked well.

EyeTV Remote App

For the princely sum of $5, Elgato has an EyeTV remote app which shows the program guide, lets you schedule recordings, review your completed recordings, and view recorded programs on your iThing. EyeTV App is AirPlay capable so output can be redirected to an Apple TV. Once the program is running on Apple TV, the iThing is free for other use like making phone calls, playing Angry Birds, or reading while PBS talking heads drone on.

EyeTV and Live TV

EyeTV 3 has the ability to pause and rewind, and resume live TV in a manner similar to TiVO. Unfortunately, with my older Mac Mini, this feature is usable on the main display but not on iThings or Apple TV. The Mac OS X Quick TIme libraries support MPEG-2 rendering allowing proper play back locally. Air Play to iThings is another story. iThings require conversion of the video stream from MPEG-2 to H.264. This is a compute intensive process that my older Mac Mini cannot do at 30 frames per second. It kept falling behind and trying to catch up Keystone Cops style.

The Apple Quick Time Codecs can use the video hardware for this process. This capability was in development and was one of the reasons Apple moved from Intel on board video to nVidia GeForce 9400 chips in that particular Mac Mini. But the older parts just don’t have the horses needed to do video conversion tasks at broadcast resolution in real time. A check of the Elgato forums did not have a clear answer t this question. Elgato’s specification is for the processor. They’re not thinking that the trans-coding process is actually occurring on the video hardware.

The solution was simple, keep the TiVO HD alive for live TV viewing. It has no trouble with that task. It occasionally snow crashes when retrieving the program guide or the recording catalog but I’ve moved these tasks to EyeTV. I can keep this guy going. Cost for this solution, $20 for a new high quality splitter. My older NTSC splitter is not up to splitting DTV.

Money

Here’s what this project cost.

  • $90, EyeTV 3
  • $5, EyeTV App
  • $80, HDHomeRun Dual tuner
  • $20, Digital splitter 1 to 2

Operating costs

  • $20/year, TV Guide
  • $240/year savings, TiVO program guideĀ 

This project has about a 1 year pay back. As I approach retirement, I’m all about getting Corporate America’s hands out of my pockets. Sorry TiVO, you’ve been disrupted.